In the mid fifties and early sixties when I was a young Assistant Superintendent on Ury Group, Passara we used to go very often to Arugam Bay and at least once a year to Kataragama. On the latter trip we would always stop by the road - side vegetable stalls and buy large quantities of vegetables and fruits in season. Even then, I was appalled at the poverty of these people eking out a living from the small plots of land they farmed. On a recent visit to Arugam Bay I found the permanent houses of the small farmers in that area much worse than the temporary houses erected for tsunami victims. It is obvious that the lot of the small farmer has not improved in the last fifty years.
I have often wondered why these small farmers have not been able to improve their earnings from the two or three acres they cultivated. It occurs to me that to develop the plot of land the farmer needs an initial investment of capital, which unfortunately he has no access to. As far as I know, no one has made a study to find out the initial capital required to get the farmer started with his basic requirements, so that he can get the maximum production from his plot of land in a sustainable manner. The State has given the farmer the land and he has to put up a dwelling, which in most instances is an apology for a house, and he cultivates crops like tomato, chilies, brinjal, lady’s finger, millet, maize etc with the onset of the monsoon rains.
When these crops are in season the prices are low, and unlike for paddy there are no guaranteed prices for vegetables and fruits and the farmer is at the mercy of the "middle man". To subsidise his earnings he has to find casual work elsewhere and it is his wife and children who cultivate the land. He is only one step better off than the "landless peasant" of the more populated areas.
In the mid eighties when I was living in Australia, I used to often think about these poor farmers and my great dream was to come back to Sri Lanka and adopt or go into partnership with one of these farming families. I had visions of providing the capital required to make the two and a half acres into a model farm producing abundant crops, milk and eggs in a sustainable manner using organic methods of cultivation. I returned to Sri Lanka in 1992 and have still not realised my dream. Now having passed the allotted three score and ten years, I feel that time is running out.
Briefly my plan is as follows, but as I learnt from my guru, Bill Sinnatamby of Trinity, these plans have to be modified according to the prevailing ground conditions of each plot of land.
1. The dwelling, cattle and goat sheds have to be located at the highest elevation point of the land. The roofs of these buildings should be properly constructed with gutters and down pipes so that all the rainwater can be collected into storage tanks. Of course the cattle and goat sheds will be built only after establishing adequate supplies of fodder. These buildings will be located in an area of about half an acre and the vacant areas should be planted with tree crops such as banana, papaw, jak, mango, coconut, areca nut, citrus etc.
2. Dig a well at a suitable location for drinking water and irrigation. Make provision to install a water pump at a later date.
3. Plant Gliricidia sticks along the boundary fence at two foot spacing. Plant Jatropha curcas plants in between the Gliricidia sticks and as a hedge on the outer side of the fence as this will keep stray cattle and goats away from the fence.
4. Depending on the gradient of the land cut two foot by two foot contour drains every 30 to 40 feet. These drains will help in retaining all the rainfall inside the land. Plant two rows of Gliricidia sticks at three-foot intervals above each drain. Once these have properly established they can be cut down to a height of two feet and formed into bushes for easy harvesting.
5. Plant Gliricidia sticks up and down the land creating plots of 20 to 40 perches. Here again they can be pollarded at two feet height and formed into green manure hedges. Vegetables and pulses will be planted in these enclosed plots in rotation.
6. Plant an area of about half an acre in a suitable fodder grass like Napier, Guinea B and NB 21.
7. Once the Gliricidia and fodder grass is well established it is time to build the cattle and goat sheds and introduce the animals. Meanwhile some free - range chicken could be reared in the area around the house. Chickens, besides the production of eggs, meat and manure also eat insects, weeds, grass and fallen fruit. Chickens, free – ranged in the garden under controlled conditions will "tractor" a given area and leave it completely manured. Portable chicken pens enclosed by wire mesh are designed to fit garden areas with chickens allowed in after harvesting and before replanting. If the chickens are left in each area for 6-10 weeks they will eat up all the grass and weeds and manure the entire area, making it ready for planting crops.
By harvesting the rain water from the roofs the farmer will have a reservoir of water for use during dry spells and enough water to grow an off season crop. Meanwhile the contour drains will ensure that all the rain that falls on the land is re – charged into the soil thereby raising the water table and ensuring more water in the well even during the dry period. The best place to store water is under ground. Once the Gliricidia and fodder grasses have been re – cycled through the livestock and incorporated into the soil together with all the other bio – mass produced on the farm, the fertility and moisture retaining capacity of the land will improve dramatically.
Demonstration farms or land holdings developed on these lines, in different agro climatic conditions will give us a better idea of the initial capital a farmer requires, to get his holding running as a viable unit in order to maintain his family at a reasonably attractive standard of living. Success will encourage more young people to take up farming instead of seeking employment in the urban areas.
In order to realise my dream I may still give up my town life to that of a three acre farmer in the dry zone !